Movie Review: “In the Heart of the Sea” a bland version of a classic tale
Does Ron Howard have fans or just people who say, “he seems nice enough?” I want to say his movies are your dad’s favorite movies but I don’t even think that’s true.
At best, it’s your father’s favorite movies to fall asleep to on the recliner after mowing half the lawn. Howard’s movies remind me of the kinds of gifts you give to older men if you don’t really know them very well. Like a book of Civil War photographs and that giant novelty flask near the cash register at J.C.Penney’s, it wouldn’t be surprising if films like “Cinderella Man” were made because a desperate film executive threw his hands in the air and mumbled, “Denise’s uncle likes old time-y boxing, right? Why don’t we get Howard to make something where Russell Crowe wears boxing gloves in a period setting? You think he’d like that? He might like that.”
“In the Heart of the Sea” continues Howard’s uncanny ability to shepherd middlebrow projects that feel like the filmic equivalent to an unopened 2011 fishing calendar that’s sitting in somebody’s grandfather’s closet.
Before we go any further, can we just admit that “In the Heart of the Sea” is a terrible title for this kind of movie? It doesn’t suggest craggy, 1800s-based maritime whaling excitement where mizzens are mast and boatswains are swabbed from the galleys to their crows-nest, it suggests a bad romantic comedy in which Diane Lane nurses a sick dolphin back to health with the assistance of Gerard Butler.
At any rate, “In the Heart of the Sea” opens with the revelation that “Moby Dick” is no better than a ‘ripped from the headlines’ episode of “Law & Order: SVU” with author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) venturing out to the badlands of Nantucket in order to interview Tom Nickerson (Brendan “Mad-Eye Moody” Gleeson) – the last surviving crew member of The Essex, a whaling ship that was destroyed by an angry white whale.
Even though Nickerson’s story mostly amounts to high sea office politics and details that were already known by the public at large, Melville is strangely enthralled. From there we’re taken to New England in the early 1800s where various British and Australian hunks speak with accents that suggest everybody is trying to do a JFK impression but also not trying particularly hard. Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth who, like Pierce Brosnan or William Shatner, won’t become an interesting actor until he becomes a full-blown parody of himself) is one of those people ‘Mayor Quimby-ing’ his way through life.
Owen is upset that he was passed over for a promotion by the boss’s son George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). Instead of helming The Essex, he’s merely its first mate. This slight causes George and Owen to fuss, fight and mismanage the whaling vessel until it’s being stalked as well as destroyed by a petty white whale.
“In the Heart of the Sea” could be described as a lot like “Jaws” if “Jaws” hectored the audience about the dangers of hubris, featured a useless subplot about a corporate cover-up and fetishized 19th century maritime jargon to a punishing degree.
To be fair, “In the Heart of the Sea” is beautifully shot. Some critics have compared the look of the movie to the paintings of J.M.W. Turner, but, to me the visuals in “In the Heart of the Sea” more closely resemble a scummy but still very bleak version of “Popeye” simply because the film suggests some elements that could be just out of frame in the comic strip. Such as weird little sailors scrimshawing pictures of boobs on whale bone. But much in the same way that Denis Villeneuve and Michael Cimino received credit for work their cinematographers had done.
Let’s not forget that the striking images have less to do with Howard’s abilities than that of his DP Anthony Dod Mantle. What Howard brings to “In the Heart of the Sea” is his typically corny, feel-good horseshit that whitewashes the more difficult elements from the book on which the movie was based and somehow manages to make the sight of cannibalism and a small child crawling around inside the skull of recently slaughtered whale uninvolving and dull. But Howard’s greatest crime against cinema is that younger brother Clint is nowhere to be found.
Listen, if I have to sit through a Ron Howard movie, Clint Howard’s Muppet-y caveman face better be front and center because he’s literally the only thing I like about his brother’s bland exercises.
Mike Sullivan is a movie reviewer for Weekender. Movie reviews appear weekly in Weekender.
“In the Heart of the Sea”
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Sam Keeley, Brendan Gleeson, Benjamin Walker
Director: Ron Howard
Weekender Rating: WW